AEP Conversations' in Hertfordshire

AEP Conversations' in Hertfordshire

Today was the first of our AEP, Artists’ Conversations tour dates, and our first collaboration is with BEEE Creative, Dance Re:Ignite programme in Hertfordshire

Artists’ Conversations are bespoke to the group, and are initiated by a dialogue around the core themes of the AEP - Artistry, Roles, Resilience and People.

Finding your axis

Skills Exchange Day 4

Strength, belief, being good enough

Laura Street

Laura has trained at The Northern School of Contemporary Dance, The Cunningham Studios, Paul Taylor Dance Company, Perri Dance Center and Alvin Aliley Studios in New York. She has performed with a wide range of companies and projects, most notably with Travelling Light Theatre Company and Oily Cart Theatre Company. She is Artistic Director of about NOWish who make immersive movement and sound experiences for young children and their accompanying adults. She is a passionate educator and leads workshops and classes in a number of different settings and recently gained her Early Years Teacher Status. Laura recently became an Associate Artist of Theatre Bristol and became involved in the Skills Exchange through her relationship with Theatre Bristol as an integral contributor and regional representative for the south west in the development of the Artists' Exchange Programme.

On day 4 of the skills exchange, Laura was moved to share her experiences and strategies for managing self care, resilience building, and knowing when you are enough. In an industry in which we set up environments and strategies to support others, Laura talked about how we can find mechanisms to support ourselves and be honest about how we are coping. In her own words she shares her reflections following on from the Skills Exchange week, and some of the practices that support her in her personal and professional work, following struggles with self worth, confidence and emotional value.

There's a sensation that has always been hanging over my shoulder throughout my life, the feeling of someone’s strong, forceful hand about to steer me out of the room I so desperately wanted to be in saying, "you’re not supposed to be here, you’re not enough".

I’m sure it’s a feeling many other artists feel, so I’m here to confess in the hope it will connect with someone who also feels they’re too about to be asked to leave. The AEP Skills Exchange week generated so much light, inspiration, creativity and hope, but all the while I feel the darkness heavy with me. It’s like I had been sent to represent the dark side of living creatively for others, as dance artists so often do.

I am a highly sensitive being and carry a lot of darkness in my soul at all times, it stays with me at my side, sometimes quiet, sometimes screaming and sometimes smothering. Towards the end of the week I put forward my confession to the group. I told them of dark periods, of the abusive relationships, the breakdowns and the messiness. Not to wallow in it, but to share, in case there was someone in the room who carried the same darkness with them, or someone knew someone else who did. I have always been open about the mess that is my brain, from making a point of turning up at events with mascara down my face from the tears of despair, to being honest with the dancers who performed my work with beauty and dedication, that I will always be eternally grateful for. For my brain and work is absolute, there’s no halfway space, it’s in or out and for many years there was no safety net. So I confessed to the AEP group in the hope it might help/inspire/connect, and to talk about the construction of the safety net that was so desperately needed.

I used the image of the axis and the orbit to explain what I meant:

Understanding your orbit

Creative processes are the orbit; commonly, immersive, all consuming and driven by passion. We often live on very little during these periods but the love for the work or the participants that inspire us, and it can be a very precarious way to live. These orbits can spin us into a world where were can’t see out, like spinning for your life in the playground, no longer being able to make out the familiar outline of the school building, and often, unfortunately, the only way is down to make it stop. I had fallen out of a daze too many times, causing some serious damage along the way. Damage which has stayed with me and now needed constant maintenance. So I set about constructing myself an axis that would keep me from spinning too far from my own
natural gravitational pull.

Constructing your axis

Each one of us is brilliantly different, but the world of social media can mean that the lines between ourselves and others can get blurred and you can get lost in others’ identities and needs. I needed to know myself to know what sent me spinning out into deep space, and thus what my axis needed to be constructed of to keep me locked into a healthy orbit. It’s often a rocky road to find what you need to be your axis, with bits of you often flying off at precarious angles and sometimes clouting loved ones in the face as you go. It’s not fun, and it's not healthy to glamorise the suffering artist, as many still do in a, in my opinion, highly irresponsible way; but to acknowledge the dark side of the person who can bring so much light and love to the world. As a wise friend once told me, all the emotions are valid, and I believe as artists we can represent the spectrum for people.

Creating a safe space

A key skill that we discovered we all do during the AEP Skills Exchange week is to create a caring and safe creative environment for people to engage with dance and their own creativity.

But how do we do that? What do we put in place to create this ‘home’ for them and ourselves? Do we think to create it for ourselves?

I shared the practice I had learnt on my massage and bodywork course, a practice that has helped me construct my own axis, when I had existed as only a small pool on the floor.

  • Opening the space, creating an environment where people can feel at home and welcomed, and you as a practitioner feel safe and secure to work
  • Greeting the participant where they are at that day and at that time, taking time to make a one to one connection so you can hope to understand where they are at
  • Working in a way that protects and cares, but allows you all to really explore and be safe to take risks. This bit takes some real consideration and acknowledgement of individual contexts
  • Closing the space. Bringing down the energy to be able to wrap yourselves up in it and prepare yourself for the next part of your day which will inevitably arrive
  • Taking time to reflect on what happened, how you feel, and recognising that some of your feelings may not in fact be yours. You may be taking other people's ‘stuff’ away with you, so making sure you’re are free to carry forward only what it yours
  • Cleansing. Finding a way to step out from one space and into another without taking baggage with you - a simple act of changing clothes can make all the difference

Axis’ are not permanent structures; what ‘held’ you at one point may no longer be the best thing at another point. To make sure yours is made of the right stuff I suggest two key things that I took away from the AEP week in December;


really listen...

and stay fluid

(Words by Laura Street)


Skills Exchange Day 2

Self, support and emotional vulnerability

Sarah Lewis

Sarah headshot.jpg

Sarah graduated from London Contemporary Dance School in 2007. She joined Verve08, the graduate dance company at Northern School of Contemporary Dance, touring venues in England, Scotland, Ireland and Finland, and won best international performance at the ITS Festival Amsterdam. Sarah works with professional artists, students and community dancers, teaching and choreographing regionally and nationally, independently and for companies including Norfolk Dance, DanceEast, English National Ballet, Richard Alston Dance Company and Rambert. In 2012 Sarah was mentored by Rosemary Lee choreographing a large scale community project in Norfolk with a live choir. Since 2011, she has regularly performed with SMITH dancetheatre, including rural and national touring of Agnes & Walter; a little love story, The Devil's Mischief, commissioned by The Pace Prize 2012 and After the fall: A little Morality Play, commissioned by Norfolk and Norwich Festival 2015. In 2013, Sarah founded Glass House Dance with co-director Laura McGill and in 2014, together became Escalator Outdoors artists, creating and touring dance for outdoor and unusual spaces nationally. In 2015 they were commissioned to make and tour a new interactive dance performance to tour to residential homes, day centres and hospitals, accessible for people living with dementia. Glass House Dance are associate artists at Norwich Arts Centre and Sarah and Laura are members of the Norfolk Dance Artist Collective. Sarah is also a qualified yoga teacher, having completed her 200hour yoga teacher training with the World Conscious Yoga Family in Rishikesh, India and teaches regular classes as well as classes specifically designed for dancers and dance students.

I have spoken about burnout and resilience building to many dancers across my work and I have been personally affected by the negative impact that lack of support for resilience as an individual and in organisations can have for your physical and mental health and wellbeing. In my research preparing for the AEP launch, I was interested to hear that many artists are struggling in the same way to find a sense of self, life and work balance and to stand up for their values when under pressure to survive. As part of the AEP Skills Exchange Sarah Lewis offered a workshop and discussion on resilience practices to support the artists to understand their values and what they are uncompromising on...

What is resilience? 

  • What are your concerns around your own resilience or the resilience of the people around you?
  • Where or when do you feel you are lacking or missing resilience in your life?
  • What are your symptoms of burnout/stress or overwhelm?
  • What do you do at these times?
  • What might a resilient Self look like?

From my training and background with The Well House, Resilience building is Based on the practices of yoga, mindfulness and meditation to support people to be able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions or situations by becoming experts in themselves.

The emotional regulation model

In their book, Mindfulness for health (2013), Burch and Penman outline 3 distinct parts of our emotional system:

  • Avoidance
  • Achievement
  • Soothing/contentment

All three systems are equally important. Too much or not enough of any part causes our whole emotional system to destabilise and become less resilient.

In a sector (and a western culture) which values achievements, and avoids illness and even rest, we are predisposed towards a less resilient lifestyle. Anecdotally I would argue that for most dance artists the balance can be readdressed, and this was echoed around the AEP artists group.

Values reflection - a personal task:
I asked people to firstly draw a big circle and within it write the main aspects and activities in your life with the things you spend most time doing in the centre, the least time doing towards the outside and virtually no time doing on the outside.

On a second piece of paper I asked people to scribe their values in any way they wanted. They could write their personal values or things they valued. They could write in list form or in another circle.

On a third piece of paper I asked the group to rewrite the first circle only this time considering what it would look like if you were being true to your values.

This task is reflecting on how things are and how things might be. It’s a task to do regularly to check in, in order to create a more resilient and sustainable lifestyle. Resilience isn’t only about having practices that support us in our working life, though there are many, but to build a life that supports our health and wellbeing, which may then enable us to invest in other people, our artistic practice and making a difference (if that is indeed one of our values!).

Muddling ethics and values:
I’m also very interested in how the values and ethics of our culture and the dance sector in which we operate regularly, can often be inseparable from our own personal values and ethics. I don’t believe the values and ethics of the dance culture; from training through to professional practice, currently supports the health and wellbeing of the individual. Because we are conditioned from a young age within a specific construct of dance ethics and values, it can be very challenging for people to see the difference between the work ethic of dancing practice and the ethics that should inform our daily living. 

A few statements came up this week that highlight this, for example when describing the enormity of workload oe artist stated; ‘well we’re just used to doing all this’. The expectation is that we can just manage / cope with the sheer volume of work that we all carry out and that this is supposed to be acceptable. If we carry on this same culture there will be more burnout, stress, and ill health physically, mentally and emotionally. This is only until we can start to look for our own ways of working that supports our own needs. 

Another discussion topic led us to share the working demands placed upon us by larger organisations who don’t necessarily support our needs to reinforce our resilience. We talk about supportive infrastructures or supervision as a pipedream idea, rather than a necessity to support the sustainability of the artist. This included conversations around the psychological support that may be needed in challenging projects or to support the wellbeing of artists through processes. 

The question is; if we as artists can start to put clear and rigorous parameters in place for our working conditions both in our personal practice and also be met by partnering organisations then will the culture and values of the sector start to shift? 

(Words by Sarah Lewis)